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Attacks underline challenges facing Iraq's Maliki

Written by: Staff

BAGHDAD, Apr 23 (Reuters) Rocket attacks, bombings and the discovery of several bodies from apparent executions across Iraq on Sunday underscored the challenges facing Prime Minister-designate Jawad al-Maliki today.

A rocket attack on a Baghdad car park killed seven people, officials said. A bomb killed three U.S. soldiers northwest of the capital and the bodies of six youths, with bullet wounds to the head, were found in a violent Sunni area of the city.

World leaders and Iraqi politicians applauded the appointment of the tough-talking Shi'ite Maliki after four months of political deadlock but urged him to include all ethnic and religious groups in the first full-term postwar government.

''Key positions must be occupied by Kurds and Sunnis, as well as the Shi'ite majority,'' said Australian Prime Minister John Howard, whose country contributes a small troop contingent to U.S.-led forces in Iraq.

''Only a government of national unity can provide the environment in which the process of reducing the current unacceptable level of internal violence can begin,'' he said.

The United States and its allies have been pressing Iraqi leaders to set up a national unity government to help avert any slide into sectarian civil war.

SECTARIAN BLOODSHED Maliki must tackle an insurgency that draws support from the minority Sunni Arabs and sectarian bloodshed that has exploded since a February bombing of a Shi'ite shrine. Sunnis held sway under Saddam Hussein's rule but the majority Shi'ites now do so.

Hundreds of Iraqis have been killed and more than 65,000 have been forced from their homes since the February bombing. The United States says sectarian violence now kills more people than the insurgency.

Maliki has a month to form a cabinet, and his team and his own post must be approved by parliament.

Iraq's first post-war appointed Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said the four-month delay in forming a government had already disillusioned Iraqis and undermined the fledgling democracy.

''It is crucial that the new government is now formed quickly in days, not weeks,'' he said in a statement. ''The Iraqi people will not understand nor accept further delays.'' Washington's ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, says the breakthrough on choosing a prime minister will lead over time to an improvement in Iraq's ability to ensure its own security, allowing a reduction in U.S. troop numbers, now about 130,000.

LONG ROAD But on the streets, Iraqis say choosing a prime minister and government is just the first step on a long road to peace and the reaction to Maliki appeared split along sectarian lines.

''Overcoming this impasse of forming the government doesn't mean solving all the political crises in Iraq,'' said Saleem al-Jubouri, a professor at Diyala University in Baquba.

''Maliki has tough issues to deal with -- occupation, regional intervention, armed militias and illegal detention centres.'' In the Kurdish north, 25-year-old Samir Abdall's response was typical: ''I don't know Jawad al-Maliki. Time will prove who he is, whether he is efficient or not. All politicians when they occupy government posts say a lot, but achieve nothing.'' Photographer Abdel Hafidh in religiously mixed Baquba, scene of many sectarian attacks involving Sunnis and Shi'ites, echoed those who fear Maliki as a hardline Shi'ite.

''He is not good. He is a hateful sectarian who has made venomous comments against Iraq and Arabs,'' said Hafidh.

''Jawad al-Maliki is the final nail in Iraq's coffin.'' Predictably, Maliki drew support in Shi'ite areas.

The United States is urging Maliki to make sure his ministers are competent, unifying and strong.

''We want him to form as quickly as possible a good, strong cabinet,'' Khalilzad told reporters.

A proven behind-the-scenes player who has helped shape postwar politics, Maliki must also rescue the oil-rich economy, which has been starved of foreign investment by the unrest.

A particular test will be his choice of interior minister, after Sunni leaders accused the Shi'ite-run ministry of condoning death squads targeting Sunnis, a charge it denies.

Reuters SHB DB2225

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